Understanding autism

What is this condition?

It is common in casual conversation to hear the terms, ‘Oh! He (she) is on the spectrum’. Initially, the phrase was used to excuse a person’s unacceptable behaviour but increasingly it is being used tongue-in-cheek to describe behaviour that is at the edge of normal, TLN Executive Officer Michael Victory writes.

As teachers we experience this type of behaviour every day, often from students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). We have an important role in leading the community in responding to the needs of children with ASD. This article is a quick primer on the background to ASD.

How does ASD manifest itself?

Typically children with ASD have difficulty with standard forms of communication. They have difficulty with the social skills that those without ASD take for granted and have a strong tendency toward fixations of interest and/or behaviour.

ASD is widely described as a developmental disorder that affects the way that individuals are able to interact with others. People with ASD have lower levels of coping with the unpredictability of the world, finding the world to be a confusing place. Individuals with ASD often have sensory sensitivities, they may be under or over sensitive to any of the five senses.

How did we get to ASD?

The condition we now know as ASD was first given a name just after World War II by Leo Kanner, working out of Johns Hopkins University in the US. He derived the name, Autism, from the Greek word for ‘self’. Working independently

In Vienna in the 1940s Hans Asperger identified a similar condition. It is from him that the condition known as Asperger’s syndrome derived its name, but his work did not become widely known in the English speaking world until the 1980s.

Australia is influenced by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is the standard classification of mental disorders used by mental health professionals in America. In 1980, ‘infantile autism’ appeared in DSM for the first time, followed by ‘autistic disorder’ in 1987. ‘Asperger’s syndrome’ was added in 1994, with the term ‘autism spectrum disorder’ being introduced in 2013 to cover all diagnoses, as a result Asperger’s syndrome is no longer used by medical professionals.

In education, the words ‘high-functioning’ and ‘low-functioning’ to describe the capacity of an individual to meet standard expectations have become common but these terms are not recognised in the medical literature.

Funding and diagnosis

The significance of the diagnosis in DSM is that there is typically a link between an official diagnosis and additional funding to support the treatment and/or education of a child with a formal diagnosis. Once again what has crept into our discourse in education are the words ‘funded’ and ‘unfunded’.

What causes ASD?

At present there is general agreement among researchers that ASD is a condition rooted in neurological and chemical processes and there is a strong genetic component. There is no evidence and no creditable research to link ASD with environmental factors such as parenting style or with a response to vaccinations as part of an immunisation program. At present there is no known cure for ASD.

What is the impact of a spectrum?

There is a debate in the community and in education, not yet overtly articulated, between advocacy groups who are rightfully seeking support for individuals whose participation in the community is severely impacted by the condition of ASD, and parents and educators and individuals who encounter difficulties with children, and adults, and who want to put a label on that difficulty. When a condition is described as being on a continuum, or spectrum, then it leaves open the possibility that a person’s behaviour can be diagnosed, labelled and funded.

The philosopher Michel Foucault has been critical of the medical pathologisation of human behaviour. Once behaviour is defined as a medical condition then it opens the possibility of there being a need for a medical treatment, thus ‘Do we need a pill for that condition’? The serious question that is raised becomes, ‘Is every human behaviour that is a little different, a disability or condition, or simply another mode of normalcy’?

As teachers we need to be wary in this debate; whether there is a medical treatment or not is a medical issue not an educational issue. A diagnosis, a label and funding do not solve the core educational issues. Our challenge remains, how to provide a high quality education for all students whether they have a diagnosis of ASD or not. Our general philosophical approach should not change because of a diagnosis, though our classroom practice might. Let me briefly explore that seeming contradiction.

What are my responsibilities?

All Australian states and territories are subject to various anti discrimination legislation, which, in summary, provides that schools cannot discriminate against a child on the basis of a disability and are required to make reasonable adjustments in respect to the educational provision for that child.

We also have an ethical and moral responsibility to engage with all of our students. Put quite simply, ‘What is the name of the student in your class that you are choosing not to teach’? No serious teacher will ever answer that question.

The Dutch education philosopher Gert Biesta describes education as a significant encounter between two human beings, teacher and student. It may be that children with ASD present a bigger challenge because we do not share their experience and so we have a lesser understanding of their lifeworld. We are at a disadvantage in the encounter. That becomes our challenge, to learn how to engage. This is not easy, but that is our commission as teachers.

There are many great resources to help us understand the condition of ASD and many teachers are now sharing the strategies that have succeeded for them in working with students with ASD (see for example online courses at www.tln.org.au). In future editions of IE, practical classroom ideas for working with students with ASD will be published.

School leaders and employing authorities should be investing in professional development for teachers and education support staff to ensure that legal, professional and ethical responsibilities to children with ASD and their families are being met.


Biesta G 2013 The Beautiful Risk of Education. Paradigm Publishers: Boulder, Colorado.

Shapin S 2016 Seeing the Spectrum: A new history of autism in The New Yorker 25 January 2016 (reviewing the book by Donvan J and Zucker C In a Different Key: The Story of Autism. Crown Publishers)


Additional resources

The American author Temple Grandin has received wide publicity for her work on autism both in the USA and here in Australia.

Novels by Mark Haddon (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night) and Graeme Simsion (The Rosie Project and its sequel) are accessible reading that might provide an insight into the lifeworld of people with ASD.

For more academic insights and general information with an Australian flavour, Latrobe University has established the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, www.latrobe.edu.au/otarc

Michael Victory is the Executive Officer of the Teacher Learning Network (TLN). TLN is owned by the IEU VictTas and AEU (Victoria) and works in partnership with IEUA NSW/ACT Branch to provide professional development programs and resources to schools across Australia. More information about TLN is available at www.tln.org.au